Sunday, September 28, 2008

A History of Ideas

I recently finished reading Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism. Before actually opening the book, I was concerned that its content would be as politically charged and intellectually vapid as its title – you know, that it would spend 400 pages condemning an entire political party and an undefined, straw-man "liberalism" by insinuating that individual politicians are closet Nazis, based upon context-free quips by unrelated organizations and media outlets. This is the exaggerated impression that I got after reading certain other political books, and with a cover bearing such a provocative title written over a smiley face sporting Hitler’s mustache, Goldberg’s book offered people ignorant of its contents the impression that there was much left to be desired.

However, I soon recalled an interview with Goldberg on C-SPAN that I saw back in college. At the time, the book's publication was delayed over some editing details, but it was pretty much complete, and Goldberg defended its thesis to an interviewer and also to callers. Granted, he did not come off quite like a Harvard professor, but there is no question that he was interested first and foremost with recalling facts and figures, recounting historical anecdotes, making thoughtful connections between historical trends, and citing books and articles by professional historians – and not, I note, with smart-ass punditry that seeks only to spout superficial, irrelevant, half-true sound bites for the pathetic sake of bashing people, parties, and organizations. That tiresome nonsense, with which Americans are thoroughly inundated at the moment, was not on Goldberg’s agenda. (He does cite a couple of specific personas in the book – and even has an entire chapter on Hillary Clinton and her book It Takes a Village – but spends this time exploring objective claims about these people’s own words and ideas instead of playing partisan politics.)

Furthermore, I am very familiar with Goldberg’s other writing, which is of very high quality. So, I decided to give Goldberg the benefit of the doubt and read his book. I am very, very glad that I did.

First, let me get out of the way those qualities of a book that, though superficial, are of great import. The writing is superb. Goldberg's use of language makes Liberal Fascism pleasant to read. Humor appears less frequently than it does in his other writing, which is appropriate given the nature of the book, but it does pop up here and there, and is delightful as always. There is the rare occasion on which Goldberg supports a point with a passage that appears a bit misplaced, but most often even those seeming irrelevancies and non-sequiturs are tied together coherently by the end of the section.

The other notable feature of the writing is its academic quality. As I said, the title and cover are provocative, but terribly misleading. Goldberg claims in the introduction that his is "not an academic book", but I find that that is only true in the sense that it does not read like a graduate student’s thesis paper. But while the writing style is not stuffy and academic (thank goodness), the content betrays a scholar who is passionate about his topic and wants the rest of us to be so as well. The themes of the book include studies of philosophers and their philosophies, how those philosophies influenced each other and developed over time, how they influenced history and how history influenced them, how they influenced society and how society influenced them, and how their impact on politics and society back then affects the political and social landscape today. Goldberg offers a thoroughly researched platter of knowledge, objective in nature, complete in both broad scope and abundant detail, covering all angles, and with an appendix plus 58 pages of endnotes made up mostly of works cited. The title and cover image simply do not do the opus justice.

(To be fair, it turns out that "liberal fascism" is a phrase coined by H.G. Wells, who was trying to promote the idea. Still, given the context of the times, and the fact that most people have no idea that H.G. Wells coined that phrase, I would not have slapped it on the cover if I were trying to get intelligent people to read intelligent content.)

Goldberg wrote the book, he says in its pages and also in subsequent interviews, largely because he was tired of conservatives being called fascists. It is exceedingly clear that fascism, what with its emphasis on statism and economic populism, is a left-wing phenomenon. However, even if we are to cave to those who claim that fascism is a right-wing ideology that just so happens to include certain aspects of government intervention (a concession that Goldberg refuses to make, as do I), then American conservatism is still not the philosophy to approach when looking for fascism’s current descendant. When fascism was in its heyday in the early twentieth century, its American counterpart was Progressivism, which in turn is the ancestor of modern American liberalism. This is a fact to which Goldberg repeatedly lends intellectual support; indeed, it is the thesis of the entire book. Really, when the basic facts of the various left-wing philosophies (Communism, socialism, fascism, Progressivism, etc.) are considered objectively, it is preposterous to conflate fascism with modern American conservatism. It is almost as though someone with a political agenda intentionally set about to propagate the fallacy that fascism is of the right for the sake of his own brand of left-wing philosophy.

In fact, that is precisely what happened. Unsurprisingly, we have Stalin to blame.

Marxist philosophy, and socialism generally, had a much greater influence on Western politics in the early twentieth century than most people realize. Most of the people in most places loved the idea of eliminating capitalism and collectivizing the economy. The reason that more countries did not have Communist revolutions is that they were not inspired by that particular brand of socialism. One given group of revolutionaries may have been united in its cause, but around the world, within individual countries, and even within individual cities and provinces, the Left in general was fraught with infighting among various factions with competing visions of what a collective utopia should look like.

One major factor that turned people off to the Communist brand of socialism, defined largely as Leninism/Bolshevism at that point, was its international outlook. Communism defined people by economic class, which was thought to transcend national boundaries, and so Communists looked forward to national boundaries disappearing when their global utopia arrived. The average worker, meanwhile, was not quite the citizen of the world that the Leninists were. An average proletariat in Germany, for example, was all for economic populism, but he was quite proud of his German culture. He wanted regulation, a shorter workday, a minimum wage, mandatory benefits, a welfare state, universal healthcare, and so on (all essential planks on fascist platforms), but he was not interested in becoming a cog in Moscow's wheel, and he did not like the idea of his homeland losing all meaning. He wore German garb, ate German food, drank German drinks in German beer halls, spoke the German language with his German family and friends, read German newspapers and literature, flew the German flag, and called Germany home. Why should he have to give up all of that just to get an 8-hour work day and health coverage? Similar sentiments were very common in many other countries around the globe.

So, in opposition to international socialism, there arose movements promoting national socialism. And, of course, there was more than one incarnation of national socialism. In Italy, Benito Mussolini, a lifelong socialist activist by his own proud declaration, led such a movement and called it fascism, employing the political symbol of the fascio, meaning "bundle" or "union", which was widely associated with the trade unions and implied, generally, the concept of "strength through unity". Italian Fascism was focused mainly on economic syndicalism and national greatness generally. Race was not a big deal to Mussolini, and in fact, Jews were statistically overrepresented in the Italian Fascist Party until 1938 when Il Duce threw Hitler a bone and enacted anti-Semitic laws. In Germany, Hitler and his Nazi party promoted their own brand of national socialism, which incorporated collectivist economics and national greatness like Italian Fascism, but also included plans of world domination and, due to the Nazis' conflation of nation and race, racism. (Plans for world domination should not be confused with internationalism. The Nazis did not want to export Nazism to the rest of the world in the way that Communists wanted to make the rest of the world Communist. The Nazis wanted quite literally to destroy the rest of the world and its population so that Germany’s borders could expand and the German people could have more living space and use any natives that remained after the take-over as slave labor.)

In any event, these national socialisms were gaining major popularity in many parts of Europe and the world. Stalin, with good reason, worried that the number of Communists loyal to Moscow would dwindle and his power and influence would become negligible because of the success of this other form of socialism. So, there really was a competition for influence between Communists and fascists, but not as a battle of right-versus-left. It was really a battle between two sides of the same socialist, left-wing coin. So one day Stalin, true to form, decided to engage in a little deceptive propaganda: henceforth, all philosophies not in line with Communism were to be called "fascist". And since Communism is quintessentially left-wing, and fascism is defined as non-Communist, then fascism must naturally be right-wing. Thus the myth began that fascism is somehow right-wing and, subsequently, tied-in with American conservatism, a philosophy that would prove time and again to be an enormous threat to Communism.

There were some Communists who truly believed, it must be noted, that fascism was the manifestation of the prophesied "last gasp" of capitalism in the face of the global Communist revolution. But that does not make it inherently right-wing, and the man whose idea it was to label fascism as right-wing was not so interested in the historical application of Marx’s prophesy as in the propagandistic value of his fabrication. Besides which, the true believers of Communism were wrong about everything else, and I am at a loss to come up with a good reason to trust them on this one.

So, if I may make such an assumption, the question remaining in many minds is: how, exactly, does American liberalism fit into this picture? Well, despite the book’s title and my favorable review, neither Goldberg nor I am calling liberals fascists. The point of the book is to point out a philosophical lineage that many people do not know exists.

Modern American liberalism is directly descended from the Progressivism of a century ago, which in turn was the American manifestation of the same national socialist temptation that formed capital-F Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany (and many other, less successful political parties in many other countries). My dear reader does not have to take my word for that, nor does he have to take Goldberg’s. The pages of Liberal Fascism teem with extensive quotes from newspapers, speeches, letters, books, articles, and general conversations of Progressives, Fascists, Nazis, and various unaffiliated national socialists. Furthermore, those quotes are cited, so the reader can do his own research if he would like.

Back then, Progressives were fairly open about their philosophical associations. After all, the Holocaust had not happened yet, and national socialism was a philosophy of hope and fulfillment just as much as the next left-wing philosophy. Of course, as I said, national socialisms came in different varieties, not least because different nations had different political cultures. American Progressivism never did produce a dictator, overthrow the Constitution, or turn a domestic society into a great big military machine – at least not permanently. A perusal of the practices that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt put into place, both in war and in peace, is quite likely to dumbfound any reader who was not alive to remember those days.

I imagine that there are still plenty of folks who remain skeptical as to the claim that we are not calling liberals fascists. One reason might be that they are conflating fascism in general with the worst elements of Nazism, an unfortunately common practice, which Goldberg and I are expressly not doing. Fascism was not the ideology of killing the Jews and taking over the world for Aryans' living space; those were part of the broader goals of Nazism specifically. Nazism was a unique political philosophy, rooted in one place and time, that based a lot of its core ideas around general fascist thought. But Nazism and fascism are not synonyms, and when we say that liberalism has philosophical roots related to fascism, that is not the same as saying that liberals are a bunch of Hitler-loving, genocidal maniacs. That would be absurd.

Fascism in general was in favor of economic regulation, an extensive welfare state, and mandatory worker benefits such as a defined work day, minimum wage, and so on. It did not oppose corporate entities quite as strongly as Communism, but it did oppose their operating within a free market, as capitalism was seen as an evil, and it insisted that businesses be good "corporate citizens". In fact, it made an especially big deal about the trouble that big department stores were causing, what with their economic clout and the subsequent disappearance of more traditional places of business. Fascists believed in allowing abortion. They promoted the idea of the people coming together, working in unity to promote the common good, and thereby making the country better and giving it a brighter future. Their vision of this brighter future included a more holistic society that shed its unnatural materialism and instead focused on "the people". Fascists liked the idea of getting "past the politics" of a given social ill, and just having the government do whatever was necessary to make things right. Very popular was the idea that the need to mend each of these social ills was "the moral equivalent of war". Fascists believed greatly in environmentalism, took a strong interest in public health, and were especially concerned about children.

Now, this does not make modern liberals fascists, and vice versa. A modern pro-choice American, for example, is clearly unlikely to have that position due to a fondness for eugenics. The point is only to provide a link and discuss its implications, not to name-call or cast suspicion.

Those who are still skeptical that we are not calling liberals fascists might consider this: The philosophical categorization of fascism might still be in dispute, but nobody denies that Communism has always been left-wing. And, liberalism is left-wing. In fact, a number of liberalism’s ideas here and there can be traced, without too much controversy, to Marxist ideas – perhaps watered down through interpretation and adaptation for an American political arena, but still ultimately stemming from that same source. However, despite all of that, it is plain that neither Goldberg nor I am calling liberals all Leninists. Well, the same principle applies to fascism. We may think that because liberalism can be traced back to Progressivism, it is therefore related just as much to fascism as to other forms of socialism, but we are not calling liberals Nazis, or Fascists, or even small-f fascists any more than we are calling them Stalinists, or Communists, or any such thing. We are just saying that there is a connection.

So then, why write a whole book about it? Well, it should not surprise anyone that a modern American conservative might be motivated to prove once and for all that conservatives are not in any way akin to fascists, what with such imbecilic name-calling by left-wing bloggers and pundits at an all-time high under President Bush. To write a book whose purpose is to reciprocate the name-calling would be pointless, and probably even counterproductive. However, an intelligent, academic work that makes plain exactly what fascism is and how it relates to the various philosophies that preside over the modern American political landscape ought to do a lot of good. And, that is precisely what Goldberg has done.